Julie Bishop draws from a deep well of conviction. As Australia’s Foreign Minister and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Julie leads a non-stop, globetrotting lifestyle as she manages Australian affairs both at home and abroad. Despite all the overnight flights, world-weighted diplomacy and political navigation her day-to-day life entails, Julie stays energized by her confidence that a better world is possible.
CONVICTS caught up with Julie this winter in Central Park, just before she went to sign the Australian Timor-Leste Maritime Boundary Treaty at the United Nations. We spoke with her about the importance of female leadership, the intricacies of international politics, and what foreign ministers talk about when they hit the bar.
Hi Julie, to start, could you introduce yourself for us?
Hi. I’m Julie Bishop, Australia’s Foreign Minister and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.
This question comes from speaking with Aussies in the US: what’s the thing that defines our character?
We’re task oriented, if you put it that way. I think that’s a side of Australians that is really well appreciated around the world. We don’t make a fuss about things. We dedicate ourselves to the job at hand and get on with it.
Young people don’t seem terribly interested in politics as a career. How can we make the political life sexy, for lack of a better term?
Politics will never be sexy. It’s meant to be a very serious business, but how can you attract more people to politics? I would hope that through education, students would have their curiosity peaked about politics and government. Current affairs can be very interesting and challenging. The more you learn about particular issues, the more you want to know. It’s also upon incumbent politicians to set an example for young people so that they would consider being involved in that career, that profession, that vocation…however one wants to describe a political career.
You’re a role model to a great deal of people. How important are role models?
You don’t set out to be a role model…I certainly didn’t. But it is important for women to be in different positions. Not only to make a difference in a particular area, but also to inspire others to think that likewise, they could become a foreign minister or a prime minister, a leader in a community or in a town or city.
Do you have people you’re able to talk to and confide in?
It is absolutely essential to have close confidants. I have family and a small group of friends that I trust with my life. So yeah: you have to keep in contact with your family and friends. Just because I’m away a lot, or I’m in Canberra a great deal of the time doesn’t mean I can’t find the time to contact them and let them know that they are appreciated and valued and loved.
How did you learn to follow through with your convictions in the face of criticism?
I learned a lot from being in the Government of John Howard. He was Prime Minister for eleven years. I was in his cabinet and a minister in his government for some of that time. He was a man who had very definite principles and beliefs. It didn’t mean that he was so set in his ways that he wouldn’t move but he had a set of principles which guided his government and his responses. I learned a lot from that. If he truly believed it was the right thing for the country then he would see through the criticism and argue the case to bring the people with him. I think that he’s been a great example for subsequent political leaders. If he believed strongly enough that a matter was in the best interests of the country, he would be prepared to argue day-in and day-out to bring the people with him.
You’re here in the U.S. and President Trump‘s policy is “America First.” What does that mean for Australia and the rest of the world? What have you experienced with regards to that?
Well, all leaders should put the interests of their nation first. So as a simple statement, it’s obvious: you should be putting the interests of your nation first. But we work very closely with the Trump administration — as we have with past administrations —to ensure that the partnership we have with the United States is beneficial for both nations. We have differences of opinion from time to time. We don’t always align on every issue but we certainly seek to complement each other’s position in regional and global matters. So while there will be differences over trade — for example, we were very disappointed when the administration pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — we went ahead and continued to negotiate with the remaining ten states. So now it’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership Eleven. Eleven nations have negotiated a very high-quality, gold-standard trade agreement. That goes to show that if you believe that the principle is right for your country, then you can overcome the challenges to implement it. So while the United States is not in this new trade agreement, nevertheless we have put together a trade agreement with Japan and Canada and Mexico, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and others that sets a standard for others to follow.
How important is it for developed nations like Australia to help countries that aren’t as lucky as us, even when we have to think about our own countries?
We have an obligation. We have a primary responsibility to help developing countries in partnership with them. We don’t impose our views. We have to work with them to achieve the outcomes that they are looking for and what’s in the best interests of their citizens. Australia has these partnerships with many countries, particularly in our region whereby we share our expertise, our experience and our views. But it’s always in partnership with the country receiving that support. Any other way and it’s not going to be enduring. It won’t last.
Can you talk a bit about Timor-Leste?
In the case of Timor-Leste, Australia was part of their push for independence. Signing a treaty that delineates the maritime boundary between Australia and Timor-Leste is a very positive step and a new chapter in our relationship. It will give certainty to investors to develop the gas resources in those seas between Australia and Timor-Leste and will set a framework for the future development of Timor-Leste, drawing on the resources available to it under this maritime treaty. That’s the kind of partnership that Australia will continue to pursue.
That’s your afternoon at the U.N., correct?
This afternoon, I’m signing the Australian Timor-Leste maritime boundary treaty for the first time under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. A conciliation that took place has led to signing the treaty, so this is a real first for international law. I’m very proud of the fact that Australia and Timor-Leste will be an example for other nations to follow. The conciliation took place over twenty months. Both parties agree that this is a fair and equitable treatment of our maritime boundaries and now we can go forward and continue our relationship. It was a peaceful negotiation over what could have been a very vexing issue.
Switching gears a bit…what’s the source of energy for your undoubtedly exhausting lifestyle?
I am driven to achieve great things for Australia. While I try to keep relatively healthy, of course constant overseas travel can take its toll, so you have to have inexhaustible supplies of energy. Because I’m so passionate about what I do, it seems to come more easily than perhaps you might otherwise imagine.
How much sleep do you get?
It depends. I would love to get seven to eight hours sleep but that doesn’t work. Many, many nights are spent on overnight flights to save time, to be more efficient. Sleeping on a plane is not my favorite pastime and it doesn’t break your sleep, but when I can grab a good chunk of sleep I’ll take it.
Can I ask you about Australia Day? In New York this year, we decided not to have our normal Australia Day party out of respect for Indigenous Australian history. How do you approach Australia Day and how do you feel about it?
I see it as a national day. It’s an institution. It reflects the beginning of European settlement in Australia. Historically speaking, there are mixed views about it within the Indigenous communities. There are mixed views across Australia. But if you look at it as a day that marks a change in Australia and has been celebrated as a national day for many years now, I see no reason to change. If we were to change, what date would we select and why? Whatever day we choose, whatever reason, it’s going to have its critics. My view is that we make the most of the 26th of January and turn it into a positive celebration of all that our nation has achieved in the last couple of hundred years.
How would you explain the concept of an Australian Republic to a young American audience?
Australia is a constitutional monarchy. We have the constitutional monarchy under the King or Queen as the case may be in the United Kingdom. It’s a piece of architecture that comes from our historical beginnings as a Westminster style government. It’s now a mechanism that is just part of our government. We have elections for parties, general elections. We don’t have a directly elected president, we have a Prime Minister who is elected by the majority party. The whole topic of turning Australia into a republic that is not a constitutional monarchy was debated by the Australian people throughout 1998 & 1999. In fact, we had a referendum and it didn’t succeed. The model that was put forward for the Australian people to consider was having a president chosen by a constitutional committee. I think the Australian people thought the last thing we need is another committee, so it didn’t get up. I think that it’s probably not a top of mind issue for Australian people. We have a government with the Prime Minister. We have elections every three years. The people choose who they want to represent them. The architecture of the constitutional monarchy doesn’t affect them day by day. There’s a wonderful saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We have one of the most robust democracies in the world. Governments are elected and move in, governments lose office and move out. The system continues to work.
Speaking of change, Australia just passed a gay marriage policy. I wasn’t home and haven’t been home since but what’s the general feeling? I’m sure it’s exciting.
There was a great deal of enthusiasm in sections of the Australian community. There are others who opposed it. Overall, it received a significant level of support from the representatives in the Australian Parliament. I think that reflects the view across the nation: people saw it as a question of equality, people saw it as a question of choice and I certainly supported it.
Clearly, you have some very serious moments throughout your day. Do you have a good ice breaker or go to joke? It feels like an Aussie-ism to take the seriousness out of the moment once in a while.
Well, you spoke earlier about what do foreign ministers do when they go into a bar. What foreign ministers do when we meet at a forum for dialogue or at the U.N. is tell travel stories. Who travelled the furthest, who had the most horrendous trip, who’s got the worst trip home, who’s staying in the most remote hotel. We swap travel stories. I’m sure if Foreign Ministers or Secretaries of State collectively put together their travel stories, it would make a bestseller. But that’s generally the opening line.
Which world leader or world leaders tear it up on the dance floor?
Justin Trudeau. Obviously. He was in India recently dancing. He’s renowned for it.
Have you had a dance with him yet?
I’ve had a conversation with him but we don’t actually go dancing. You think at the UN we just turn on the music and up with the speakers we dance? It doesn’t happen…You sound disappointed.
Can you define ‘conviction’ for us?
I’m a lawyer. Conviction is when you’ve just been convicted. No. An immutable belief in a principle.
Thank you so much for the chat Julie.
Good to chat to you, always is.